PORTLAND, OR - JULY 02: The starters of the Portland Timbers pose for a picture before the start of the game against Sporting Kansas City on July 2, 2011 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
This is it. The game most of us have been waiting for since the season began back in March. Games against the Seattle Sounders are special. In the most recent years we've only been able to experience them through the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Today, it's through the MLS regular season. It's been a long time coming...
Unfortunately, today's match transcends the rivalry. Given the Portland Timbers' position in the stands, today is more than about pride. More so than anything else, no matter the opposing side, getting the three points is a must. The Portland Timbers aren't out of the play-off race yet. Hell, just look at Sporting Kansas City. A month ago they had one of the most abysmal starting records of any MLS team ever. Today, they're considered to be a play-off contender.
The Timbers need to secure a win today. They need it more than anything else. So, while it would be fun if the Timbers were secure enough we could all just revel in the rivalry, that's just not so today.
Let's take a look at the teams.
Assessing Our Team
The Timbers are still going through a bit of a rough patch, to put it nicely. This isn't the same team, confidence-wise, that we saw heading up to Seattle back in May when both teams were even in the standings. Unfortunately, both teams have drifted fairly far apart, and not in the good way either.
Looking up top, I'm not expecting Kenny Cooper to start. Despite Eddie Johnson not impressing overwhelmingly (he was serviceable) I believe we'll see him take the top spot once again. For those that watched/attended the Club America game, you'll remember Kenny Cooper played in a large chunk of that match. That game was only a few days ago and, as such, I'm inclined to believe that Cooper will be sitting out because of it.
The midfield should largely look the same as always with Kalif Alhassan and Darlington Nagbe playing out wide and Jack Jewsbury and Diego Chara playing in the center. I mentioned this the other day, but I would still love it if the Timbers would switch to a 4-3-3 position and slot Darlington Nagbe up top with Perlaza and Johnson/Cooper. Given the strength of Seattle's midfield right now I don't see the Timbers overpowering them there.
Finally the defensive line. It was reported yesterday that Rodney Wallace would be sitting this game out, unfortunately for us. Instead I believe we'll see Jeremy Hall playing in his position. Hall was playing in his position during training earlier this week.
The key for the defense will be to stay compact and keep the opposing players out of the box. Pretty simple advice really, but they've been struggling with it in the past. It was a defensive gaf that lead to the New York Red Bulls scoring early and it was two defensive gafs that lead Sporting KC to get 2 goals before the half. These need to stop... today.
Here's my projected starting line up:
Assessing the Flounders
If you read my scouting report and interview with Dave Clark of Sounder at Heart in the last few days then you should have a pretty good idea of where the goals will be coming from in today's match (if they come at all).
Essentially, at the moment, Seattle's offensive third is pretty weak at the moment. Their young Designated Player, Fredy Montero remains with only 3 goals and 4 assists. For a player who, in the previous two years, had scored double digit goals this is actually really low. No other striker is really mentionable.
Instead, it will be Seattle's midfield that should most worry the Timbers and we fans. Both Brad Evans and Alvaro Fernandez have four goals each and Mauro Rosales has four assists to his name. All three players are paying very well. Additionally, I've been assured that it is actually Osvaldo Alonso anchoring the midfield that makes the entire team gel sufficiently. Also remember, Steve Zakuani isn't able to play. The fact that this team is so deep in the midfield despite that is pretty incredible. As I mentioned above, I would like to see the Timbers try and play around the midfield as best as possible because, at present, I don't see any way to muscle them out there.
Looking back to the defense, luckily the Seattle backline is nothing to write home about. They've done well, but conceding five goals in their last five games at least shows that they're not impenetrable. James Riley is the main concern here and not for his defensive efforts. In Seattle's previous game he had the most crosses in to the final third's box, more so than Seattle's strikers or their mid-winger. I expect to see him just as swift and speedy for today's match.
And finally, we have Kasey Keller. Once a Portlander, now an enemy. What's there to say? He's having a pretty good season thus far so I don't expect him to make things easy. But then, most goalkeepers don't. He's currently sitting at a respectable .90 goals allowed average (GAA) which means, on average, he's allowed in less than one goal per game. We'll just have to make this this isn't one of those games.
Projected starting line up:
A win today would be huge. It would be bigger than big were the Timbers to get all three points today. Not only would it be a huge moral boost, but it would put the Timbers in the clear lead to secure the Cascadia Cup trophy while, at the same time, pretty much ending Seattle's run. Sure they might come in higher in the standings, but if the Timbers were to win the Cascadia Cup trophy this season instead of Seattle... wow that would be a huge moral victory for the team and the fans.
Aside from that, as usual, today's game is merely important to get the points. The Timbers need three points. It's been too long since they've been able to make a significant step up in the standings. With the transfer window opening in under a week, having the Timbers come in on a high note would better alleviate the pressure the FO and head coach John Spencer might be feeling about bringing in new faces.
Today's game kicks off at 1:00 PM at Jeld-Wen Field. You can watch it live on ESPN (the main network channel!) or via ESPN3.com.